Disclaimer: RICE does not endorse or support any political party in Singapore.
This is a series of voter profiles by RICE where we speak to Singapore’s marginalised communities to find out the issues that matter to them.
Specifically, the ruling PAP was cheered for its array of Malay candidates. When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong introduced some of them, he called them role models: “It is a very diverse range. It represents a new generation of young Malay successful people who have made good in life, and who want to give back.”
While seemingly harmless, and perhaps even well intentioned, statements like these exemplify how minority struggles are often misrepresented in Singapore’s establishment.
Airina Imran, a 35-year-old creative director, explained how without addressing systemic inequalities, putting these candidates on a pedestal does little to break stereotypes about Malay people. If anything, the narrative that these individuals are ‘exceptions’ only further perpetuate certain assumptions about minority abilities.
“Growing up, my dad always emphasised the importance of representing my race in the best light possible. So I had to be the best in class, get good grades, always be punctual and on my best behaviour,” Airina said.
“Because as a Malay person, you are always hyper aware of the stereotypes.”
But ironically, when you become successful you don’t crush the stereotypes, you end up being branded as the exception.”
When presenting the new candidates, PM Lee continued to say that the individuals proved “our system works to ensure that the Malay community and Malay Singaporeans, just like anybody else in Singapore, have full and equal opportunities to do well, and to succeed and contribute back to society.”
Here again, the narrative of a country based on meritocracy erases the existence of any systemic inequalities in Singapore.
That isn’t to say things aren’t improving. Sabrina Meah, a 25 year old professional born to an Indian mother and Malay-Chinese father, said that this year was certainly better for representation: “I really look up to Nadia Ahmad Samdin and Mariam Jaafar. I think they are very impressive candidates—highly capable, and great for minority representation. Especially Mariam, she came from very humble beginnings.”
“It was sad to see that there were no new Indian candidates, but overall there is still Indian representation in the PAP, so I wasn’t that bothered.”
Mariam Jaafar, one of the new Malay PAP candidates, was largely praised for not letting her underprivileged background be a barrier to success. Mariam said that “thanks to the sacrifices of my parents, the kindness shown by many and the quality of the Singapore education system, I’ve been able to go on to study at some of the best universities in the world and then work for some of the best companies in the world.”
The story of humble beginnings and subsequent success is often repeated during election season, but many voters find it problematic.
“The narrative of pulling yourself by your own bootstraps doesn’t add up,” Airina said. “There are so many Malays and other minorities who are working hard and can’t achieve that level of success without some form of help.”
Both Sabrina and Airina mentioned how inequalities present themselves in Singaporeans’ lives as early as when starting school. Sabrina, who attended the country’s top-ranking schools, said, “There were never many non-Chinese people in my classes.”
Going into the nuts and bolts of the system, Airina said that “our education system doesn’t allow you to excel if you don’t have extra help outside of school, whether from tuition or enrichment classes. And that immediately leaves marginalised groups at a disadvantage.”
There are currently organisations that provide out of school enrichment classes for underprivileged kids, like SINDA or MENDAKI, but Sabrina feels these rarely match the standard of private tuition.
Airina also wonders:
“Why shouldn’t school be enough? And why shouldn’t all kids get access to quality education?”
“When we talk about ‘successful Malays,’ there’s only one template for that, and it’s measured by a Chinese person’s ideas of success—a local or ivy-league university followed by a white collar job.”
For this reason, Airina found Abdul Shariff Bin Aboo Kassim’s story from the Workers’ Party really inspiring. He dropped out of secondary school to work in a factory, worked various blue collar jobs, and then studied full-time as a mature student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
But despite this, the Workers’ Party barely scrapes the surface in addressing systemic discrimination in Singapore. Their manifesto does state that “holistic, systemic changes are needed to our education and social policies,” and they propose anti-discrimination legislation. But they lack an assessment of the different ways institutions in our society work in harmony to favour or discriminate against certain individuals.
The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) comes the closest to acknowledging the systemic gaps in our society by featuring a 10 point plan in its manifesto for uplifting the Malay community specifically.
The SDP says that “the Malay community lags behind our other ethnic communities” and adds this “not a Malay problem or a Chinese problem or an Indian problem or a Eurasian problem—it is a Singaporean problem that requires the attention of all Singaporeans.”
In the same way this problem belongs to no race, it shouldn’t belong to any specific political party either. Systemic change needs to be pushed for in all fronts and by everyone in parliament.
And if certain parties are not ready to address that, opting instead to introduce ‘model minority’ candidates for this election, they are just as much at risk of perpetuating the idea that barriers to progress depend on individual effort, and are not institutionally entrenched.
It’s these issues minorities want politicians to address—whether they are minorities or not.
“Sometimes it’s like our own politicians are not helping us,” Airina said. “They are just helping the government explain their policies to us. But they are not advocating for our issues.”
To exemplify her point, Airina brought up a few incidents: Masagos Zulkifl calling home based businesses “irresponsible” after petitions were signed asking the government to rethink their stance on the matter, or when Amrin Amin called Preetipls’s rap video “disturbing” without addressing the brownface scandal behind it.
Technically, representation shouldn’t be an issue. The current GRC system ensures that electoral divisions and Parliament remain multiracial. But for Airina, showcasing minority faces only goes so far. The rest comes from honest and nuanced discussions of how the government and society can best address minority struggles.
As a successful Malay woman, she said that voices of Malays are still not leveraged enough: “I’ve always been the only Malay in the senior department where I work. But even when I’m surrounded by other Malays, I’m always the only Malay woman.”
I’m never known as Airina the creative director, but as Airina the Malay creative director.”
To shift this perception, they hope to see a greater diversity of backgrounds, personal histories and experiences from potential candidates standing for election. It isn’t enough to check the box for “representation” by rolling out a slate of ‘model minority’ candidates.
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